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Dirty Black Sox laundry—some stains are stubborn

rule 21 noticeMLB posts the sign to the right in every clubhouse to remind players that even thinking about throwing a game will end their career.

Baseball fans don’t think too much about this sort of thing today—basketball fans may. But for the first 50 years of the game, they did. Game-throwing (hippodroming as it was called in early times) made for a lucrative side industry. At a time when lower-ecomonic-class immigrant men populated the game, and twenty years before the Hall of Fame opened, who really considered their legacy? You only had a few, maybe ten, years to make your money and get out. Unsurprisingly, by the late 1910s rumors floated that even the 1917 and 1918 World Series had been fixed. Giants third baseman Heinie Zimmerman, later suspended for suspicion of throwing other games, was at the center of these rumors in the Giants’ 1917 loss to, wait for it, the White Sox. Cubs pitchers Shuffling Phil Douglas—also later suspended for tanking—and Claude Hendrix allegedly fell under the influence of gamblers when the Red Sox won their last Series of the 20th Century. The 1919 Series then was, perhaps, only the first substantiated conspiracy to undermine the Fall Classic.

Two members of the 1919 conspiracy have strong HoME cases based on their regular-season records: Left fielder Shoeless Joe Jackson and starting pitcher Eddie Cicotte. We have reached different conclusions about their candidacies, however.

The HoME rules state:

Personality, character, and sportsmanship shall not be considered except when explicitly and demonstrably tied to winning or losing baseball games. Participation in gambling conspiracies during a player’s career can be considered because it relates to winning and losing.

Game throwers are dead to us. When you try to lose, you lose any shred of our support. That’s why Eddie Cicotte will get an obit from us but never our votes. Cicotte signaled that the fix was in by plunking Morrie Rath to lead off Game 1 of the series. In descriptions of events there are obvious instances where he interfered with play in ways that enabled the Reds to score. He admitted it, recanted it, admitted some of it again. Every witness in the grand jury trial and the later fraud-conspiracy trial sang the same song: Cicotte lost games on purpose. Don’t let the coffin lid hit you on the way down.

Jackson, on the other hand, while dirty, is not quite dirty enough. Or at least we can’t make out which dirt is which. His numbers in the Series are superficially good. The play-by-play accounts neither exonerate nor incriminate him. Then again, even if it appeared obvious that he turned it on and off, one of the great truths about baseball is that in eight games anything can happen. And does.

Jackson (and Cicotte) famously signed a confession that was later read in court. He recanted it and flatly denied game fixing. Early in his career, Jackson may, as more forgiving popular media members have suggested about him in 1919, have been a rube whose illiteracy made him an easy target for big-city types. His testimony strongly suggests he adapted well enough to city life, and the wariness he displayed on the stand of double-crossing doesn’t come off as the hapless mental wanderings of a wide-eyed bumpkin. But when Chisox owner Charles Comiskey’s lawyers cornered the fearful and guilt-ridden Jackson as the scandal broke, plied him with whiskey, and made sweet promises, he was no match. The resulting confession, though accepted as evidence in court, seems ill-gotten by us.

That Jackson knew about the conspiracy and took $5,000, is not in doubt. He admitted it in open court. Contrary to the media portrayal of the day, however, Jackson did not admit to throwing any games. In fact, he flatly and multiply denied it. Let’s look at the record. Court transcripts of Jackson’s testimony at the 1920 grand jury proceedings include these damning but not ultimately incriminating (in a baseball sense) statements:

Q: How much did he promise you?

Jackson: $20,000 if I would take part.

Q: And you said you would?

A: Yes sir.

* * *

Q: At the end of the first game you didn’t get any money, did you?

Jackson: No, I did not, no sir.

Q: What did you do then?

A: I asked Gandil what is the trouble? He says, “Everything is all right,” he had it.

Q: Then you went ahead and throw the second game, thinking you would get it then, is that right?

A: We went ahead and threw the second game, we went after him again. I said to him, “What are you going to do?“Everything is all right,” he says, “What the hell’s the matter?

It certainly appears that Jackson was of a mind to throw games, and in the second exchange may have even inadvertently admitted it. Still, not to get all lawyerly and parse words, but we can’t say what you and we mean here. You as in the conspirators or as in Jackson, himself? Does Jackson include himself in we? Or is he talking about the conspirators in general. The surrounding transcript doesn’t help much, and without having been there, who can say? Then again, Jackson later claimed that when Gandil offered him the $20,000, he said no, and Gandil told him to take it either way because the fix was in regardless. Anyway, soon after the line of questioning above comes this back-and-forth:

Q: Didn’t you think it was the right thing for you to go and tell Comiskey about it?

Jackson: I did tell them once, “I am not going to be in it.” I will just get out of that altogether.

Q: Who did you tell that to?

A: Chick Gandil.

Q: What did he say?

A: He said I was into it already and might as well stay in. I said, “I can go to the boss and have every damn one of you pulled out of the limelight.” He said it wouldn’t be well for me if I did that.

Q: Gandil said to you?

A: Yes sir.

Q: What did you say?

A: Well, I told him any time they wanted to have me knocked off, to have me knocked off.

Q: What did he say?

A: Just laughed.

* * *

Q: Did you make any intentional errors yourself that day?

A: No sir, not during the whole series.

Q: Did you bat to win?

A: Yes.

Q: And run the bases to win?

A: Yes, sir.

Q: And fielded to the balls at the outfield to win?

A: I did.

And again a little later…

Q: Did you do anything to throw those games?

A: No, sir.

Q: Any game in the Series?

A: Not a one. I didn’t have an error or make no misplay.

We’re supposed to believe that people under oath tell the truth until they get rung up for perjury. Even if Jackson didn’t, we can’t tell whether his testimony contains explicit contradiction or not.

Our more learned baseball historians will tell us that drawing lines between cheater and non-cheater in that time, much like now, may not be done so easily. Rumors swirled around plenty of players, and others did things more subtly and made payola on the side for it. Cicotte got caught red handed throwing games. We haven’t been able to make that determination for Jackson.

It’s much easier and more dramatic to say “CHEATER!” and be done with the matter. Life isn’t so easy. The preponderance of the evidence clearly says that he knew about the fix, but it doesn’t obviously condemn his conduct on the field. We’re not ready to burn the witch.

In some ways we have to hold our noses—he took the money, he knew about the fix—and we’d prefer an easy choice, like with Cicotte. But we’re big boys, and we don’t get to feel 100 percent great about every vote. Sometimes that’s how baseball is.

—Miller and Eric

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